Trans Eurasia travel

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Uzbekistan does not have a long tradition of going out in the evening: entertainment typically came to you. At weddings and other festivities, such as Navruz (the Persian New Year, celebrated in Uzbekistan on 21 March), families and friends would come together at home, and poets, musicians and singers would come to the house to perform. If the entertainment was particularly good, the guests would be inspired to dance and sing themselves.

This slowly began to change during the Soviet period. Theatres and concert halls were built across Uzbekistan, and a professional class of entertainer emerged, some of them performing traditional Uzbek works, but the majority spreading high culture from Russia such as academic works of drama, ballet and opera. Tickets were cheap (and remain so) in order to democratise access to the arts, and new works were commissioned that praised the worker and explored his/her life and experience, rather than focusing on kings, queens and fairy tales that had been popular before. Every town, however small, had its own performance space, and the populace was actively encouraged to attend.

Today Uzbekistan's theatres are a mixed bag. Often housed in striking, neoclassical buildings, they have suffered since independence due to funding cuts and the cessation of movement of companies, directors and artists from other parts of the Soviet Union. Whereas once an Uzbek ballerina could have hoped to travel to Moscow or St Petersburg to train, and would have enjoyed an illustrious and peripatetic career, now such opportunities are few and far between. That said, there are companies that are thriving: the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent continues to put on challenging, world-class productions, including many new plays, and a night at the ballet at Tashkent's Alisher Navoi Opera is a highlight of any trip to Uzbekistan, particularly if you dress up and enjoy the sweet half-time Georgian champagne.

Uzbekistan's larger cities all have cinemas showing the latest Russian and Hollywood blockbusters. The latter are almost always dubbed or subtitled in Russian, though you can usually follow the plot of action films and thrillers. Art-house films are a little more challenging, even if you understand the language. Cinema tickets tend to be slightly more expensive than theatre tickets, though still rarely more than a few dollars a head.

In recent years Uzbekistan has started to host several annual festivals designed to showcase the country's artistic heritage to the world. The Asrlar Sadosi (Echo of Centuries) festival is backed by UNESCO and organised by the Fund Forum of Uzbekistan, a cultural organisation chaired by Gulnara Karimov. It includes performances by folk musicians from around Uzbekistan, wrestling tournaments, fashion shows, educational lectures and tastings. Similarly, the Silk & Spice festival takes place for a week each year in Bukhara, and singers and storytellers perform at Chimgan's Echo Festival of Bards.